Homework Theory

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September 6, 2006

The Truth About Homework

Needless Assignments Persist Because of Widespread Misconceptions About Learning

By Alfie Kohn

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There’s something perversely fascinating about educational policies that are clearly at odds with the available data.  Huge schools are still being built even though we know that students tend to fare better in smaller places that lend themselves to the creation of democratic caring communities.  Many children who are failed by the academic status quo are forced to repeat a grade even though research shows that this is just about the worst course of action for them.  Homework continues to be assigned – in ever greater quantities – despite the absence of evidence that it’s necessary or even helpful in most cases.

The dimensions of that last disparity weren’t clear to me until I began sifting through the research for a new book.  To begin with, I discovered that decades of investigation have failed to turn up any evidence that homework is beneficial for students in elementary school.  Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure, homework (some versus none, or more versus less) isn’t even correlated with higher scores at these ages.  The only effect that does show up is more negative attitudes on the part of students who get more assignments.

In high school, some studies do find a correlation between homework and test scores (or grades), but it’s usually fairly small and it has a tendency to disappear when more sophisticated statistical controls are applied.  Moreover, there’s no evidence that higher achievement is due to the homework even when an association does appear.  It isn’t hard to think of other explanations for why successful students might be in classrooms where more homework is assigned – or why they might spend more time on it than their peers do.

The results of national and international exams raise further doubts.  One of many examples is an analysis of 1994 and 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data from 50 countries.  Researchers David Baker and Gerald Letendre were scarcely able to conceal their surprise when they published their results last year:  “Not only did we fail to find any positive relationships,” but “the overall correlations between national average student achievement and national averages in [amount of homework assigned] are all negative.

Finally, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits  for students of any age.  The idea that homework teaches good work habits or develops positive character traits (such as self-discipline and independence) could be described as an urban myth except for the fact that it’s taken seriously in suburban and rural areas, too.

In short, regardless of one’s criteria, there is no reason to think that most students would be at any sort of disadvantage if homework were sharply reduced or even eliminated.  Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of American schools – elementary and secondary, public and private – continue to require their students to work a second shift by bringing academic assignments home.  Not only is this requirement accepted uncritically, but the amount of homework is growing, particularly in the early grades.  A large, long-term national survey found that the proportion of six- to-eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 58 percent in 1997 – and the weekly time spent studying at home more than doubled.

Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland, one of the authors of that study, has just released an update based on 2002 data.  Now the proportion of young children who had homework on a specific day jumped to 64 percent, and the amount of time they spent on it climbed by another third.  The irony here is painful because with younger children the evidence to justify homework isn’t merely dubious – it’s nonexistent.


So why do we do something where the cons (stress, frustration, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, a possible diminution of interest in learning) so clearly outweigh the pros?  Possible reasons include a lack of respect for research, a lack of respect for children (implicit in a determination to keep them busy after school), a reluctance to question existing practices, and the top-down pressures to teach more stuff faster in order to pump up test scores so we can chant “We’re number one!”

All these explanations are plausible, but I think there’s also something else responsible for our continuing to feed children this latter-day cod-liver oil.  Because many of us believe it’s just common sense that homework would provide academic benefits, we tend to shrug off the failure to find any such benefits.  In turn, our belief that homework ought to help is based on some fundamental misunderstandings about learning.

Consider the assumption that homework should be beneficial just because it gives students more time to master a topic or skill.  (Plenty of pundits rely on this premise when they call for extending the school day or year.  Indeed, homework can be seen as a way of prolonging the school day on the cheap.)  Unfortunately, this reasoning turns out to be woefully simplistic.  Back “when experimental psychologists mainly studied words and nonsense syllables, it was thought that learning inevitably depended upon time,” reading researcher Richard C. Anderson and his colleagues explain.  But “subsequent research suggests that this belief is false.”

The statement “People need time to learn things” is true, of course, but it doesn’t tell us much of practical value.  On the other hand, the assertion “More time usually leads to better learning” is considerably more interesting.  It’s also demonstrably untrue, however, because there are enough cases where more time doesn’t lead to better learning.

In fact, more hours are least likely to produce better outcomes when understanding or creativity is involved.  Anderson and his associates found that when children are taught to read by focusing on the meaning of the text (rather than primarily on phonetic skills), their learning does “not depend on amount of instructional time.”  In math, too, as another group of researchers discovered, time on task is directly correlated to achievement only if both the activity and the outcome measure are focused on rote recall as opposed to problem solving.

Carole Ames of Michigan State University points out that it isn’t “quantitative changes in behavior” – such as requiring students to spend more hours in front of books or worksheets – that help children learn better.  Rather, it’s “qualitative changes in the ways students view themselves in relation to the task, engage in the process of learning, and then respond to the learning activities and situation.”  In turn, these attitudes and responses emerge from the way teachers think about learning and, as a result, how they organize their classrooms.  Assigning homework is unlikely to have a positive effect on  any of these variables.  We might say that education is less about how much the teacher covers than about what students can be helped to discover – and more time won’t help to bring about that shift.

Alongside an overemphasis on time is the widely held belief that homework “reinforces” the skills that students have learned – or, rather, have been taught — in class.  But what exactly does this mean?  It wouldn’t make sense to say “Keep practicing until you understand” because practicing doesn’t create understanding – just as giving kids a deadline doesn’t teach time-management skills.  What might make sense is to say “Keep practicing until what you’re doing becomes automatic.”  But what kinds of proficiencies lend themselves to this sort of improvement?

The answer is behavioral responses.  Expertise in tennis requires lots of practice; it’s hard to improve your swing without spending a lot of time on the court.  But to cite an example like that to justify homework is an example of what philosophers call begging the question.  It assumes precisely what has to be proved, which is that intellectual pursuits are like tennis.

The assumption that they are analogous derives from behaviorism, which is the source of the verb “reinforce” as well as the basis of an attenuated view of learning.  In the 1920s and ‘30s, when John B. Watson was formulating his theory that would come to dominate education, a much less famous researcher named William Brownell was challenging the drill-and-practice approach to mathematics that had already taken root.  “If one is to be successful in quantitative thinking, one needs a fund of meanings, not a myriad of ‘automatic responses,’” he wrote.  “Drill does not develop meanings.  Repetition does not lead to understandings.”  In fact, if “arithmetic becomes meaningful, it becomes so in spite of drill.”

Brownell’s insights have been enriched by a long line of research demonstrating that the behaviorist model is, if you’ll excuse the expression, deeply superficial.  People spend their lives actively constructing theories about how the world works, and then reconstructing them in light of new evidence.  Lots of practice can help some students get better at remembering an answer, but not to get better at – or even accustomed to — thinking.  And even when they do acquire an academic skill through practice, the way they acquire it should give us pause.  As psychologist Ellen Langer has shown, “When we drill ourselves in a certain skill so that it becomes second nature,” we may come to perform that skill “mindlessly,”  locking us into patterns and procedures that are less than ideal.

But even if practice is sometimes useful, we’re not entitled to conclude that homework of this type works for most students.  It isn’t of any use for those who don’t understand what they’re doing.  Such homework makes them feel stupid; gets them accustomed to doing things the wrong way (because what’s really “reinforced” are mistaken assumptions); and teaches them to conceal what they don’t know.  At the same time, other students in the same class already have the skill down cold, so further practice for them is a waste of time.  You’ve got some kids, then, who don’t need the practice and others who can’t use it.

Furthermore, even if practice was helpful for most students, that doesn’t mean they need to do it at home.  In my research I found a number of superb teachers (at different grade levels and with diverse instructional styles) who rarely, if ever, found it necessary to assign homework.  Some not only didn’t feel a need to make students read, write, or do math at home; they preferred to have students do these things during class where it was possible to observe, guide, and discuss.

Finally, any theoretical benefit of practice homework must be weighed against the effect it has on students’ interest in learning.  If slogging through worksheets dampens one’s desire to read or think, surely that wouldn’t be worth an incremental improvement in skills.  And when an activity feels like drudgery, the quality of learning tends to suffer, too.  That so many children regard homework as something to finish as quickly as possible – or even as a significant source of stress — helps to explain why it appears not to offer any academic advantage even for those who obediently sit down and complete the tasks they’ve been assigned.  All that research showing little value to homework may not be so surprising after all.

Supporters of homework rarely look at things from the student’s point of view, though; instead, kids are regarded as inert objects to be acted on:  Make them practice and they’ll get better.  My argument isn’t just that this viewpoint is disrespectful, or that it’s a residue of an outdated stimulus-response psychology.  I’m also suggesting it’s counterproductive.  Children cannot be made to acquire skills.  They aren’t vending machines such that we put in more homework and get out more learning.

But just such misconceptions are pervasive in all sorts of neighborhoods, and they’re held by parents, teachers, and researchers alike.  It’s these beliefs that make it so hard even to question the policy of assigning regular homework.  We can be shown the paucity of supporting evidence and it won’t have any impact if we’re wedded to folk wisdom (“practice makes perfect”; more time equals better results).

On the other hand, the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling.


Copyright © 2006 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page. www.alfiekohn.org — © Alfie Kohn

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Why is your homework not done? How theories of development affect your approach in the classroom.


Homework (Analysis)
Homework (Educational aspects)
Education (Analysis)
Education (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)


Name: Journal of Instructional Psychology Publisher: George Uhlig Publisher Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 George Uhlig Publisher ISSN: 0094-1956


Date: Dec, 2003 Source Volume: 30 Source Issue: 4


Product Code: 8210103 Educational Philosophy NAICS Code: 61111 Elementary and Secondary Schools SIC Code: 8211 Elementary and secondary schools

Accession Number:


Full Text:

Trying to get students to complete their homework is one of the most frequent and frustrating behavior problems for educators. There are many approaches to this problem. The purpose of this article is to examine how four theories of development applied to this behavior can change the explanation and intervention used. The four theories discussed in this article are behaviorism, constructivism, maturational and ecological systems.

These theories of development are created with basic underlying assumptions about the nature of humans and their development. This article will also discuss metatheories and how they influence an educator's choice of developmental theory.


How many times have you straggled with a child who will not complete his or her homework? I will use this situation to apply four different theories of development while explaining how each theory influences the interpretation of the behavior and the intervention that would be applied. The four theories I will use are behaviorism, constructivism, maturational theory and ecological systems theory (See Table 1). This article will demonstrate how your approach to this behavior will differ depending on your belief system and choice of theory. Most of us do not spend any time trying to understand the paradigm under which we operate and how it affects the interventions we choose to use in our classrooms. To clarify this, the article will also describe the main metatheories or paradigms and the corresponding developmental theories.

Application of Behaviorism

A behaviorist would identify the homework problem as being an issue of reinforcement. Terminology can be difficult to grasp under this theory. Reinforcement is defined as anything that results in a behavior increasing or staying the same. This does not mean the behavior has to be a desired one. Positive reinforcement refers to the presentation of something that results in an increase in behavior while negative reinforcement is the removal of something to increase the behavior. Positive and negative do not refer to the type of behavior exhibited by the child, but rather the presentation or removal of a stimulus after a behavior (Alberto & Troutman, 1995).

Since the child, let's call her Susan, is repeatedly refusing to do her homework it would appear that she is being reinforced for this behavior. Teachers are often unaware that they encourage inappropriate behavior through reinforcement. If a child is bothering you for something while you are trying to work with another child you may give in to him or her with the hope that s/he will stop disturbing you. This would be an example of you negatively reinforcing yourself. You are removing the bothersome child so that you can have quiet. The child will learn to keep bothering you, because s/he has received positive reinforcement through your attention and knows you will eventually give in. As a result the likelihood of this behavior continuing is high. Teachers often give positive reinforcement of inappropriate behavior through attention. In this example, let's assume that every time Susan comes to school without her homework done she has to stay in for recess with you. She may enjoy being with you, which would make this positive reinforcement. On the other hand, she may also be trying to avoid something outside, such as bullies. In this situation, keeping her in would be negative reinforcement because you would be removing a situation she wants gone. There are endless possibilities as to why Susan may want to be in for recess. If this is what she wants she will continue not doing her homework.

When using behaviorism the educator must find a way to reinforce the desired behavior. The first step is to establish what would reinforce Susan. The simplest way to do this is by asking. If Susan wants to stay in at recess then her teacher could work with her to make this the reinforcer for completing her homework. They could work out an agreement such as the following. If Susan brings back her homework completed everyday for a week she can spend morning recess on Fridays with her teacher. Assuming that Susan wants to stay in at recess that should be a positive reinforcement resulting in the increased probability of her completing her homework.

Application of Constructivism

Constructivism, developed by Jean Piaget, assumes that the child should be the initiator of activity and is the person responsible for interacting with the environment. The child manipulates the environment rather than it being a multidirectional relationship. There are four developmental periods a person may go through, sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations and formal operations (Beilen, H., 1989; Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B., 1969). In each of these stages the child is able to construct knowledge at different operational levels. If Susan is not doing her homework, a constructivist could argue that the work is not at a level in which the child can construct knowledge. If Susan is not in the same period as the work she will not be able to do it. It will make no sense to her. The simple solution to Susan's chronic incomplete homework would be to give her work that she is able to do. The understanding in this theory would be that the teacher would continue to set up the environment in school so that Susan's daily interactions will lead her to the next period of development, for example from preoperational to concrete operations.

Application of Maturational Theory

Maturational theory, developed by Arnold Gesell, promotes the gift of time. (Thomas, 1996) A child cannot be pushed through the developmental stages. This theorist would argue that Susan is not completing her homework because she is not ready to do so. It is probably above her developmental level. This is different from the constructivist viewpoint. Maturationists believe in the biological reasons behind the developmental level while constructivism does not. In maturational theory there is no point in forcing Susan to try and complete her homework if she doesn't understand it since she will never understand it until she develops to that level. There is nothing that the teacher can do to hurry this along. As a result, it would be better to give Susan homework she can do and wait until she has developed far enough biologically to understand the material. Although this sounds similar to constructivism it is not the same. The reasons behind Susan not understanding the homework are different as well as the influence that the teacher can have. It is important to remember that maturational theory has a biological base.

It should always be our intention to give homework to children that they can do. Unfortunately, we often give the same homework to everyone in the class regardless of their ability levels. A maturational theorist would disagree with this. Each child needs to have work at his or her level. As a solution to Susan's problem it would be recommended that the homework be changed to a developmentally appropriate level, no matter what that is.

Application of Ecological Systems Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner developed the theory called ecological systems. He demonstrated how a child interacts with his or her environment in a series of systems that include the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem and the macrosystem (Thomas, 1996k The child and these systems interact. effecting change. Susan's inability to complete her homework maybe due to her interaction with any of these systems. Since Susan appears to want to stay in for some reason a teacher using this theory would try to determine what that reason was. Let's assume that some older girls were bullying Susan at recess. By not completing her homework she was able to stay inside for recess and avoid the bullies. Unless the bullies are dealt with Susan will not complete her homework since it is more important to her that she not be pushed around outside. In order to resolve the homework problem the teacher would have to sort out the bullying at recess so that Susan felt comfortable enough to go out again. If this were the only issue, she should begin completing her homework. Unfortunately, it is often not that simple. Each system interacts with the other and many may be involved in the problem. The bullies and their systems also need to be considered.


As shown in the incomplete homework example, there is a wide range of strategies and interpretations when dealing with inappropriate behavior. To fully understand the aforementioned theories &development, an educator needs to know which metatheory, or paradigm, a theory falls under. Institutes of higher education do not spend much time on metatheories with undergraduates. Even at the Master's level it is common not to discuss them. This is an oversight. How you see the world and the people in it has a major impact on your classroom. Educators are often left with a lack of choices especially once employed. In order to keep jobs and gain tenure, educators must follow the guidelines of the administration, which usually reflects their paradigms. Conflict can arise when the educator does not view children and their learning and development the same way as the administration. To help resolve these problems it is vital for educators to acknowledge and be able to explain their worldview and the theory of development that they use in the classroom. Sometimes, as an educator, you are left with no other choice but to find a school system with which you have a better fit; however, before taking these drastic measures I encourage you to evaluate your theoretical orientation.


Terminology can often lead to confusion for educators. (Ford & Lerner, 1992; Thomas, 1996) For the purpose of this article, when I speak of metatheories, paradigms or worldviews I am using them synonymously and interchangeably. When trying to understand one's own worldview or metatheory one must be clear on what is being defined. The metatheory, also referred to as a paradigm or worldview, is the umbrella under which theories of development fall (Aldridge, Kuby, Strevy, 1992; Thomas, 1996). They involve general views about the nature of humans and their development (Miller, 1993). There are three metatheories associated with child development, mechanistic, organismic, and contextual. A fourth, dialectical, could also be added, but for our purposes I will focus on the first three (See Table 2) (Aldridge, 1991; Aldridge, et al., 1992).

If you are predominately mechanistic you operate with the belief that children are like machines. They are passive and respond only when stimulated by the environment. This is a reductionist theory and is usually identifiable by its quantitative traits. Behaviorism is an example of a theory that is founded on a mechanistic paradigm. An educator who follows the organismic paradigm views children as active participants capable of manipulating their environment. The organism or the child in this case, is greater than the sum of its parts. S/he cannot be reduced. For example the composite parts of a body do not make a human life. It is the way they interact with each other that creates the life. The organismic paradigm is also identifiable through its qualitative traits (Aldridge, 1991; Ford & Lerner, 1992; Lerner, 1986; Miller, 1989). Constructivism and maturational theory" are both examples of organismic theories. The educator who operates under the contextual paradigm sees the child and the environment as having an interactive, multidirectional relationship. S/he believes that the context gives meaning and can help explain behavior (Miller, 1993). Social cognitive theory, ecological systems theory and cultural-historical theory have a contextual base. With the current research and retooling of theories it is becoming more difficult for educators to identify with one of these paradigms in its purest sense. As a result, there has been a shift to view organismic and mechanistic metatheories within a contextual framework. When this is done these paradigms are identified as contextual mechanistic and contextual organismic. In the case of behavior analysis theory, Bijou (1989) argues this effectively. Table 2 presents characteristics of the three main metatheories in their simplest forms.

These metatheories operate with different basic assumptions. Developmental theorists created their theories under the influence of these assumptions, sometimes without their knowledge (Miller, 1993). It is important to recognize that we also make decisions and apply interventions based on these paradigms without knowing it.


Being able to understand and identify one's underlying paradigm and theory of development has important significance for educators. Table 4 demonstrates specific areas in which this knowledge would be beneficial. If you are able to understand why there is a problem you are more likely to reach a resolution.


As demonstrated through the example of incomplete homework there are many different ways to explain and intervene with problem behavior. I have only discussed four theories of development. There are many more but these are good examples of the ones currently in use in our schools. It is important that educators recognize the theory of development they believe in and the paradigm or metatheory it fails under. Differences of opinion among staff and parents are often because of differing paradigms. By being able to understand how and why you approach children and their learning and development the way you do, you will become a more confident, effective educator.


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Aldridge, J. t 1991). Redefining learning for education practice. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 20, (1) 8-15.

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Aldridge, J., Sexton, D., Goldman, R., Booker, B., Weaner, M. (19983. Examining contributions of child development theories to early childhood education. College Student Journal, 453-459.

Beilin, H., (1989). Piagetian theory. Annals of Child Development, 6, 85-131.

Bijou, S., (1989). Behavior analysis. Annals of Child Development, 6, 61-83.

Ford, D. H., & Leaner, R. M. (19923. Developmental systems theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Lemer, R.M. (1986). Concepts and theories of human development. (2nd ed.) New York: Random House.

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Thomas, R. M. (1996). Comparing theories of child development. (4th) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Isabel Killoran, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education, York University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Isabel Killoran, 4700 Keele Street, N837C, Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3, Canada; Email: ikilloran@edu.yorku.caTable 1 Problem Behavior Not Completing Homework Theory of Development Explanation Behaviorism Child is receiving a reinforcer for not complet- ing her homework. Constructivism Child is functioning at a different operational level than what is required to complete the homework. Maturation Theory Child is unable to under- stand the work. Ecological Systems Something in the child's environment is interfering with the child's ability or desire to complete the homework. Theory of Development Intervention Behaviorism Identify an appropriate rein- forcer and present it upon completion of homework. Constructivism Give the child homework at the correct level. Continue to set up the classroom to encourage interaction that will lead to the next level. Maturation Theory Give the gift of time. Do not push the child. Give the child developmentally appropriate homework. Ecological Systems Ask the child if there is a problem at home or in school. Work with the parents or peers to help the child complete the work. Table 2 Characteristics of Metatheories Mechanistic Organismic Nurture/environment has Child manipulates and the most influence interacts with environment/ nature has a greater role Reductionist Nomeductionist Parts are greater than the Whole is greater than the whole; individual differences parts; holistic Quantitative Qualitative Mechanistic Developmental Contextualism Nurture/environment has Multidirectional relationship the most influence between child and environment Reductionist Interactive Parts are greater than the Recognition of influence of the whole; individual differences context on the individual characteristics Quantitative Qualitative and quantitative Table 3 Child Developmental Theories and Underlving Paradigms Mechanistic Organismic Developmental Contextualism Behaviorism--Skinner, Constructivist--Piaget Ecological systems-- Watson Bronfenbrenner Information Processing Maturational--Gesell, Social cognitive-- Theory--Ashcraft, Ilg, Ames Bandura Posner, Klahr, Wallace Psycholanalytic Cultural-Historical-- Psychosexual--Freud, Vygotsky, Luria Psychosocial--Erikson Biological--Wilson, Behavior Analysis Lorenz, Tinbergen, Theory--Bijou, Baer (a) Bowlby, Ainsworth Humanistic--Maslow, Critical Theory-- Rogers Kessler, Elkind, Lubeck, Bowman, McLaren (b) (a) Bijou (1989) considers contemporary behaviorism to be a combination of mechanistic and contextual. (b) There is some debate as to whether critical theory can be classified under child developmental theory. I have chosen to include it. Table 4 How Will This Help Me? 1. Conflict with staff and administrators is often a result of conflicting paradigms or theories. 2. Being aware of different paradigms and theories allows you to be more understanding of other approaches. 3. Parents may have different ideas or need to understand the reasons behind your strategies to fully support them. 4. Being able to explain your underlying paradigm and theoretical approach could lead to compromises with administration, staff and parents when necessary. 5. Different theories offer a variety of explanations and strategies for behavior problems. 6. Working for a school board or administrator who has the same theoretical approach will lead to a "better fit" and a less stressful work environment.

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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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